Matthews’ departure from SMMUSD leaves Malibu void

Education activists believe Malibu needs representation on the Board of Education, if not within the school district’s leadership staff, after human resources head Mike Matthews leaves his position.

By Jonathan Friedman / Special to The Malibu Times

Last week’s announcement that Mike Matthews, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District human resources head, will soon leave means Malibu will lose its lone resident in an authoritative position within the district. With no Board of Education member from Malibu on the dais since Kathy Wisnicki chose not to run for reelection in 2008 and, after next month, nobody from this city having an administrative post, there will be a Malibu void in the SMMUSD that some say should be filled.

City Councilmember Laura Rosenthal, who is a longtime education activist, said last week, “It’s been really nice to have somebody who lives in Malibu and understands the challenges of Malibu at the district office.”

She said it is unfortunate Malibu will lose that voice when Matthews leaves for his new job as superintendent of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District on July 1. Rosenthal said she hopes he could be replaced by another Malibu resident, if there is somebody living here qualified for the position.

Former Board of Education member Wisnicki said she is not concerned about replacing Matthews with a Malibu resident. She noted that district staff members are not necessarily Malibu or Santa Monica residents, but rather people from any area who are hired for their skills.

Matthews said he understands the concern, and knows some people consider him Malibu’s advocate on the district staff, but he said his role has never been limited to that. Matthews said he considers himself an advocate for both cities, as does the entire SMMUSD leadership.

“This district with Tim Cuneo as superintendent has worked hard on behalf of the schools and residents in Malibu,” Matthews said.

However, he added, “I would like to see a Malibu resident elected to the Board of Education in November. I think it would be good for Malibu residents to have an advocate who lives here.”

Wisnicki echoed this point. “I would encourage a Malibu person, or parent in particular, to really think about running for the Board of Education,” she said. “I think there is always a benefit to having a Malibu resident on the board. I think it’s crucial and I hope somebody decides to run.”

Wisnicki added that several current board members, all Santa Monica residents, have worked hard for Malibu. She mentioned Board President Barry Snell as the best example. He comes to Malibu frequently, she said, and has been a strong advocate for Malibu High School on the athletic field lights controversy. He even attended the California Coastal Commission meeting in Oceanside to support the school.

So far nobody from Malibu has stepped forward to say he or she would run for a seat in November. Wisnicki said, “Now is the time when everybody is thinking about who we should decide to encourage to run.”

Rosenthal said it is difficult to get somebody from Malibu to do it because of the enormous time commitment, including travelling the distance from Malibu to SMMUSD’s central office in Santa Monica. She said that perhaps a resident from the eastern part of the city could do it, since the drive would be shorter.

Four Board seats will be up for grabs in November. No incumbents have specified whether they plan to run for reelection. Those announcements are usually made in the late spring or summer. But there could be at least one incumbent who will not be competing for a seat. Two-term member Oscar de la Torre has publicly said he plans to run for Santa Monica City Council in November.

Aside from just losing a Malibu resident, Wisnicki said the SMMUSD is losing a great leader with Matthews’ departure. She called him “very professional” and “likable.”

“He has been responsible for the negotiations with the district and the labor unions,” Wisnicki said. “So he really does an excellent job of mediating some really heated discussions. He’s very open-minded in terms of listening to people. People really respond to him.”

Matthews came to the district from Northern California in 1993 to become the second principal at Malibu High in the school’s second year of existence. As principal, Matthews saw Malibu High become a California Distinguished School and he taught an Advanced Placement History course.

“Being a part of building Malibu High School and making it the great school that it is was really something special,” Matthews said.

In 2004, Matthews took the job as SMMUSD’s assistant superintendent of human resources. Following the resignation of Superintendent John Deasy, Matthews was appointed interim head of the SMMUSD in 2006. He applied for the permanent superintendent position, but then withdrew his application once it became clear to him he would not be a finalist for the job. Later that month, Matthews became the vice president of the Los Angeles office of Extreme Learning, a San Francisco-based firm involved in bringing programs to Title I schools.

Less than a year later, Matthews returned to the SMMUSD and resumed his position as head of human resources. “They say you can’t come home, but obviously that’s not true,” Matthews said at the Board of Education meeting when he was reintroduced.

Matthews said this week that he selected Manhattan Beach after careful thought, and decid fulfilled his desire to become a district superintendent. He said his several years in the SMMUSD central office has prepared him for the job. For now, he will remain a Malibu resident, and he will decide with his family whether a move closer to Manhattan Beach is necessary.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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